If there is one thing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is good at doing, it is carving out different worlds for each of their protagonists. We’ve seen the worlds of science, mythology, mysticism, politics and espionage through the various films and television shows. But like many of the Marvel comic books, the Netflix shows have New York City at its heart. While New York may seem relatively small in size compared to the wider Marvel worlds, each Defenders’ show is able to carve out its own space—and there’s no better place to spot these differences than in the opening titles of each show.
We joke how Matt Murdock refers to Hell’s Kitchen (literally just several blocks in Manhattan) as “my city,” yet instantly this title sequences shuts us up with its visually rich characterization of the area. From the very beginning, we understand that this story’s scale is large, with images of skyscrapers, bridges and tower cranes. We don’t know this as we watch the sequence at first, but this plants the seeds for the plot themes of real estate and gentrification.
And then we have imagery that makes up the more inwards-looking themes of the show. With the main characters being servants of the law, the very beginning of this sequences sets up the contrast between legal justice and vigilante justice, with a statue of Lady Justice covered in some sort of red substance—wax, or poison, perhaps? But most likely, blood. And then we have alternating images of a church and angel, referencing Murdock’s Catholicism and the important role it has on his life, followed with the image of this devil covered in the red substance, quite obviously our titular Daredevil.
Despite taking place in the same area of New York, Jessica Jones takes a more intimate approach to its title sequence. Jessica’s role as a private investigator puts her in the position of a voyeur, extrapolating all of these dirty secrets from the inhabitants of Hell’s Kitchen. We spy on faraway shadowy figures from behind walls, in alleyways, through fences and windows.
The visual style could not be any farther away from the waxy, bloody Daredevil, with this paint-like artwork resembling something out of the original Alias comic book series. It combines an abstract, surreal quality with a mixture of noir and paranoid thriller imagery. Rather than taking a wider look at Hell’s Kitchen, we see it up close and personal. And from the final seconds of the title sequence, we learn that we see all of this from the eyes of our very own Jessica Jones.
The first time I saw this title sequence, I was eerily reminded of the openings of True Detective (season 1 and season 2). Upon conducting some research, I learned (unsurprisingly) that the same studio (Elastic), artists and creative director (Patrick Clair) worked on both True Detectives, Luke Cage, Daredevil, Iron Fist and ultimately The Defenders. This sequence more than the other Marvel/Netflix shows resembles that of True Detective, with the protagonist(s) essentially merged with the community that they inhabit.
The architect and infrastructure of the mostly African-American Harlem is almost a skeletal system to Luke Cage, the very thing that keeps him standing and firm. There’s something a bit more humble, more down-to-Earth about this area. We see iconic places for black Americans such as the Apollo Theater, and again and again we see the street sign for Malcolm X Boulevard, quite obviously one of the most prominent Civil Rights activists in American history, as we see Luke’s arm deliver a super-powered punch to a wall. This is the story of a very real city.
The sequence for Iron Fist is perhaps the most odd one out, depicting a very different perspective of New York for its protagonist. Rather than focus on the financial district of Manhattan that Danny Rand readapts himself into, this sequence instead focuses on Danny somewhere outside of the city. Unlike Matt, Jessica and Luke, Danny can’t really properly call New York City his home yet, being away from it for so long.
Instead, we are given an artful look into Danny’s training, discipline and concentration that he pulled from his time at K’un Lun. With the New York skyline shining the background, we get a sense that Danny at this point in his life, is a loner with much to prove to the world. Trails (almost resembling ink, or some sort of energy) follow his movements, with the occasional yellow-green spark of power. As opposed to the other sequences that focus heavily on the city itself, this one keeps its protagonist front and center.
Combining not only these characters but these worlds into one sequence is a daunting challenge. The approach that Elastic appears to have taken was looking at New York City from a macro perspective. This was a largest scale event, hitting all different parts of Manhattan and the different worlds that these heroes inhabit. Like the sequence for Luke Cage, the opening of The Defenders connects the heroes and their worlds by combining them in a visual fashion.
We don’t focus on street signs, buildings, windows or anything of the like—we have a higher view of the streets and city grids of New York, almost resembling blood vessels. And by super imposing the Defenders themselves onto the streets, using their respective colors (red Daredevil, blue Jessica Jones, yellow Luke Cage and green Iron Fist) to further distinguish them. The metaphor of blood vessels also works really well from a thematic perspective; the city is the force that gives each of them life, the force that keeps them moving and fighting. In the end, these figures and colors all merge—although they come from somewhat different worlds, they are all fighting for the same purpose.
The Art of the Title (Briefly, In Closing)
If you, like myself, have an affinity for excellent opening title sequences, look no further than website The Art of the Title. While much of the above are from my own observations, it was nice to see some of these affirmed by interviews that the website had with the artists and creative directors. See their articles on Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist through these links.
As mentioned, the sequences for four of these shows were done by Elastic (with their work on Daredevil being nominated for an Emmy), who also worked on the sequences for Game of Thrones and The Leftovers, with Patrick Clair acting as creative director on the sequence for Westworld. Meanwhile, the Emmy-nominated sequence for Jessica Jones was the handiwork of Imaginary Forces and creative director Michelle Dougherty, with the studio responsible for the title sequences of shows like Mad Men, and Dougherty behind the sequences of Stranger Things and Black Sails.